Current criteria for the selection of unrelated donors for hematopoietic cell transplantation (HCT) include matching for the alleles of each human leukocyte antigen (HLA) locus within the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), however, remains a significant and potentially life-threatening complication even after HLA-identical unrelated HCT. The MHC harbors more than 400 genes, but the total number of transplantation antigens is unknown. Genes that influence transplantation outcome could be identified by using linkage disequilibrium (LD)-mapping approaches, if the extended MHC haplotypes of the unrelated donor and recipient could be defined.
Methods and Findings
We isolated DNA strands extending across 2 million base pairs of the MHC to determine the physical linkage of HLA-A, -B, and -DRB1 alleles in 246 HCT recipients and their HLA-A, -B, -C, -DRB1, -DQB1 allele-matched unrelated donors. MHC haplotype mismatching was associated with a statistically significantly increased risk of severe acute GVHD (odds ratio 4.51; 95% confidence interval [CI], 2.34–8.70, p < 0.0001) and with lower risk of disease recurrence (hazard ratio 0.45; 95% CI, 0.22–0.92, p = 0.03).
The MHC harbors genes that encode unidentified transplantation antigens. The three-locus HLA-A, -B, -DRB1 haplotype serves as a proxy for GVHD risk among HLA-identical transplant recipients. The phasing method provides an approach for mapping novel MHC-linked transplantation determinants and a means to decrease GVHD-related morbidity after HCT from unrelated donors.
A novel method of MHC haplotype matching provides a means to decrease graft-versus-host disease-related morbidity after transplantation from unrelated donors.
Graft rejection and graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) are feared complications of hematopoietic cell transplantation (HCT). GVHD can affect all parts of the body, and, if severe (grade III to IV out of a scale of IV), can lead to the death of the transplant recipient. GVHD or rejection of the graft occurs when there are differences in specific proteins involved in the immune response (known as HLA antigens) between donor and recipient that stimulate the immune reaction. GVHD and graft rejection occur most often in people who receive transplants from unrelated donors because, although when donors are matched to recipients matching is done for the most important HLA antigens known to be involved, it has not technically been possible to match for all possible antigens. However, the human genome is organized into segments or blocks of closely linked genetic variants that are inherited as “haplotypes” on the same DNA strand of a chromosome. Most of the genes that code for HLA antigens are physically located together in one part of the human genome, known as the MHC region. Currently three HLA markers from this region (HLA-A, -B, -DRB1) are matched when matching donors and recipients. If it were possible to better map the structure of this region, it would be possible to better match recipients and donors (especially unrelated donors) for the unidentified transplantation antigens and reduce the chance of recipients getting GVHD or rejecting their grafts.
Why Was This Study Done?
Current strategies to define MHC haplotype blocks look at, on average, a length of only 18,000 base pairs and hence cannot define extended MHC haplotypes. Previously, this group of researchers developed a method of defining the HLA-A, B, DR haplotypes in recipients and their HLA-matched unrelated transplant donors using high-quality DNA containing 2 million base pairs across the MHC region. They wanted see if using this technique might provide a way to better assess the risk recipients have of developing GVHD or of having recurrent disease.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
They studied 246 HCT recipients and their donors who had been matched for HLA-A, -B, -C, -DRB1, -DQB1 by current techniques. The recipients were having HCT for a variety of hematological cancers: acute lymphoid leukemia, acute myeloid leukemia, chronic myeloid leukemia, or myelodysplastic syndrome. They found that, using the new technique, 22% of the donor–recipient pairs were haplotype-mismatched. Taking various other factors into account, including age, and patient and donor gender, MHC haplotype mismatching was associated with an approximately four times greater risk of severe acute GVHD but with a lower risk of disease recurrence. The lower risk of recurrence is believed to be because transplanted cells do not only replace abnormal cancerous cells but also react against them and therefore decrease the chance of the cancer recurring; mismatched cells are known to be more stimulated to react against the cancerous cells.
What Do These Findings Mean?
The results here suggest that this new haplotype matching method can provide a way to assess the risk of GVHD after HCT from unrelated donors, and in future could be considered as a technique to match donors and recipients.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040008.
• Medline Plus has a page of information on stem cell transplantation, including HCT
• The Anthony Nolan Trust holds one of the largest databases of unrelated donors in the world
• The National Cancer Institute has a page of questions and answers on HCT
• The Center for International Blood & Marrow Transplant Research describes outcomes research in transplantation
• The National Marrow Donor Program describes how HLA-typed unrelated donors are identified
• The World Marrow Donor Association is involved in facilitating stem cell donation across international boundaries